A new study published by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found a relationship between suicide rates and increased minimum wage. According to the researchers from Emory University, when the minimum wage is increased by even $1, suicide rates decrease.
“Life expectancy of the richest 20% of Americans has increased over the last three decades, while the life expectancy of the middle 60% has changed little, and has decreased for the poorest 20%. Minimum wage increases may be one intervention to reduce income-based disparities in life expectancy, including from suicide,” the study authors write.
Suicide is one of the leading causes of death in the United States (especially among teens and young adults) and has contributed to the decline of life expectancy. Population-level research reveals that suicide rates in the US have increased by over 30% over the past two decades.
Studies also find that people with lower incomes are more likely to experience depression and attempt suicide than those with higher wages. Moreover, education plays a significant role in suicide rates, as often higher education comes with job opportunities that provide benefits and higher wages.
Studies find that income inequality negatively impacts other aspects of mental health and wellbeing, as poverty and deprivation leads to higher levels of stress, reduced access to health care, and that “social problems result in violence, low levels of trust, and weaker community life.” According to neurological research, these stressors take a toll on these groups’ performance on cognitive tasks.
Losing a job and periods of unemployment, being overcome with debt, and living in financial hardship have all been identified as stressors associated with suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. While a few previous studies suggested that social welfare policies and higher wages may decrease suicide rates, relatively little is known about how economic interventions might reduce suicidality and depression.
As previous research had already determined the association between minimum wage and suicidality, the researchers of this study zoomed in on the relationship between these two factors in people with a high school education or lower within all 50 states from 1999 to 2015. They also aimed to study how unemployment modified the relationship between minimum wage and suicide rates during this period. For both analyses, they adjusted for the effects of inflation.
For adults between 18-64 years of age with high school education, the researchers found that for every $1 increase on minimum wage, suicide was reduced by 3.5% to 6%. Yet there was no reduction for those with an undergraduate, graduate, or professional education, possibly because they would not directly benefit from an increase in the minimum wage.
The researchers also found that unemployment changed the relationship between suicide rates and minimum wage.
“When unemployment is high (>6.5%), progressively higher minimum wages are associated with lower suicide rates, while at low unemployment (3.8%–6.5%), the effect of the minimum wage is attenuated, with little effect observed at very low unemployment (<3.8%).”
When state minimum wage was not higher than the federal minimum wage, suicide rates were the highest. According to their findings, with an increase of $1 or $2 on minimum wage, tens of thousands of suicides may be prevented.
These results add to the growing literature on socioeconomic status, psychology, and health. The findings highlight the importance of increasing the minimum wage, which has been $7.25 since 2009, as it may prevent future suicide attempts. Other studies have also shown how the depressive symptoms and days with mental health problems of people with a high school education or less are reduced when the minimum wage is increased – decreasing further as minimum wage increases.
The growing body of evidence connecting social and economic inequality to increasing suicide rates internationally suggests that policy level public health approaches are needed. This strengthens the case made by the United Nations Special Rapporteur Dainius Pūras, who has called for suicide prevention efforts that “address the structural factors that make lives unliveable and examine how distress arises within power imbalances.”
Kaufman, J. A., Salas-Hernández, L. K., Komro, K. A., & Livingston, M. D. (2020). Effects of increased minimum wages by unemployment rate on suicide in the USA. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, Jech–2019–212981. DOI:10.1136/jech-2019-212981 (Link)
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.